My New iPod. (Please, Apple?)

Recently my 160 GB iPod classic began showing signs of advanced age. I would fully charge it, play it a bit, leave it to the side for a day and return to find the battery nearly depleted, sometimes so low it wouldn’t turn on. I began to think it was time, that this device had finally reached the point where it could be allowed to retire gracefully.

I bought this iPod, my third, shortly after the “classic” designation was first introduced. I was thrilled: this was the first iPod large enough to hold the entirety of my music collection, freeing me from the burden of curating playlists and trying to second-guess what my tastes would be on a given day. (I have largely re-assumed this burden with my 32 GB iPhone, but that is another matter.) It did not trouble me at the time that, merely by calling its former flagship product a “classic,” Apple was signaling that the iPod’s glory days as a music device were behind it. A classic is something beyond the need for evolution or change, something that provides the same pleasures over and over, something — if I may get momentarily pretentious — more associated with memories than hopes.

So, back to my ailing iPod classic. I had some extra money and, what’s more, an impeccable justification for replacing my current model. Except I dragged my feet. I looked at the refurbished models on the Apple website and noted with approval that I could save quite a bit of money buying used. Gradually it dawned on me that I didn’t want to buy a new iPod. Not because of sentimental attachment to the current one — though I love Apple technology, the devices themselves are completely fungible to me, and I have no hesitation in dumping my current object of affection for something new and improved. The problem is that the current iPod classic really isn’t improved from the model I bought in 2008. Today’s classic supports Genius playlists and … I’m not really sure what else. There is certainly no difference of any substance. I can’t think of another Apple product so little improved over so long a time. But then, why improve a “classic”?

I see the logic. Apple is about iOS devices: the iPad, the iPhone and its bastard offspring, the iPod touch. The iOS platform is Apple’s chance to directly influence the evolution of an entire new computing paradigm, in a way they didn’t quite do with the Macintosh. They’d be crazy not to put all of their eggs in that basket. And let’s face it: mp3 players are so five years ago.

Let that sink in for a moment. In 2004, the iPod was so wondrous and improbable that Newsweek put a shot of an iPod-bedecked Steve Jobs on its cover. The implications of a device that allowed listeners to carry their entire music collections (or at least listeners without 25,000-song libraries) on their person at all times had still barely begun to percolate. Pundits debated the ethics of walking around in a constant, private aural fog; newspapers told lurid stories of people mugged, and in one ghastly instance murdered, for their iPods; and some folks seriously believed the iPod’s shuffle function was secretly rigged to play the same songs over and over, proving definitively that most people don’t really understand what “random” means. The Walkman changed the way people listened to music; the iPod, by allowing people access to essentially everything they might want at any given time, changed how they thought about music, and how it could more meaningfully accompany your life.

And then all of a sudden, a few scant years later, none of that was really a big deal anymore. For one thing, people bought iPods so rapidly and in such quantities that they quickly became ubiquitous. During the 2003 Christmas holiday, Apple was pleased to sell three quarters of a million iPods; four years later, that figure had grown to more than 22 million. Today they move at a rate of about nine million a quarter — still pretty good for a product category now regarded as a technological afterthought. Which brings us to the second reason why the iPod lost its luster: in January 2007, Apple revealed the iPhone. The iPod had been a curiosity when it made its 2001 debut (“It costs how much? It only works with Macs?”); the iPhone was recognized from day one as a game-changer, and everything else looked dull by comparison to it. Especially mp3 players. “You mean it only plays music?”

Once the iPhone came to market, it quickly grew into Apple’s flagship product, pulling the bulk of Apple’s resources in its wake. The iPod’s signature dancing silhouettes disappeared from TV, replaced by simple, point-and-tap demonstrations of the iPhone’s incredible capabilities. The iPod, which had already settled into a comfortable pre-Christmas upgrade cycle, became something like a relative who appears at rare but predictable intervals at family functions, always with some new affectation to gossip about, like a blonde dye-job or a conspicuously young new girlfriend. A peculiar randomness came to dominate the iPod nano, the flagship of the iPod line. The year the iPhone debuted, the nano was remade into something like a miniature console TV, the better, it was thought, to allow people to watch iTunes video content on it. A year later, that design was scrapped entirely in favor of a return to the previous slender, vertical design; no one at Apple now seemed to mind if you had to turn it on its side to watch video on it. A placeholder update the following year added a shiny aluminum finish and new colors, while the most recent iteration seemed to test the definition of the word “update”: an almost perversely small device with no on-board controls, no video camera (added several generations prior) and a clip borrowed from the iPod shuffle. It is hard to discern a vision behind these lurches from one form factor to another. I wrote a few years ago that Apple should simply ditch the nano and start over with a new, re-conceived mass-market iPod, and this last iteration in particular confirms for me that I was right.

A Note on the iPod Touch

You will have noticed I am not including the iPod touch in the bloviating above. That is because I am considering devices whose primary purpose is to store and play music. Being simply an iPhone with the telephony hardware removed and a little extra storage in its place, the iPod touch is not a dedicated music player, more of a handheld, general-purpose computer. (Apple distinguishes it in the market by positioning it as a gaming device.) What makes something a dedicated music player? In my view, you need two things:

  1. A display large enough to show many album tracks in a single view
  2. Hardware controls that allow you to operate the unit without looking at it or with the display asleep

This already disqualifies every non-classic iPod Apple makes. (Apple tries to satisfy the second requirement by bundling headphones built with simple click-remotes to enable users to pause, play and skip. Needless to say, this is not what I’m looking for. Apple’s pack-in buds are uncomfortable and don’t sound very good, meaning that I never use them. Besides, unless you’re jogging, which I never do, it’s easier and more natural to simply click a button on the player itself than to thread the cord with your fingers looking for the button. I’m not even going to dignify Voice Over. A talking mp3 player is something Bill Gates would think up.)

I would add to the above a third requirement:

  1. Enough storage to fit a library of tens of thousands of songs.

So the iPod classic is the only Apple mp3 player that suits my need as a more-dedicated-than-average music listener. But I am reluctant to reinvest in a device that has evolved so little in the years since it was released. Assuming Apple were inclined to invest the time and resources to make the iPod fresh and exciting again, what would a new iPod classic look like?

Well, before we even get to that, that name has to go.

Introducing the iPod Macro

As we discussed above, a “classic” is something that no longer evolves, something whose primary appeal is nostalgic. That should end. There is room for the iPod to advance, and its name should reflect that. I propose the iPod macro as the music device I want Apple to sell to me. The name communicates its primary appeal: this is for people with a lot of music, and it’s designed from start to finish with their needs in mind.

How could the iPod macro be designed for hardcore music lovers? The basic form factor would carry over from the touch: for navigating long libraries of songs, touch-scrolling beats the click wheel any day of the week. It would have two volume buttons on the left edge, just like the touch does. It would have an additional rocker switch on the right: a play/pause control in the center and forward and back buttons on either side. (I am sparing you my primitive Photoshop skills here. You’re welcome.) And leave the headphone jack on the bottom — it’s one of the best design decisions Apple ever made with the iPod line.

So is making a worthwhile new iPod simply a matter of putting another set of buttons on the side? Not quite, though I wouldn’t say no to it. There are other capabilities Apple should build into an iPod macro, such as:

  • A SoundHound/Shazam-like audio recognition service, built into the OS and tied into iTunes
  • The ability to make smart playlists directly on the device
  • Intelligent shuffle options, similar to what you find in the Groove app. You can rather inelegantly replicate this functionality with smart playlists, but it’s much more simple and Apple-like to simply be able to tap something like, “Play three songs each by my favorite artists” or “Play five-star songs I haven’t heard in the last month.”
  • A refined album track display that lets me see song ratings along with song titles. Seriously, doesn’t this bother anyone else?
  • Advanced search functionality — basically like the current search but with more granularity for searching by year, title, etc.
  • Local music sharing. Not the “squirting” that the Zune was originally supposed to do — christ, I threw up in my mouth a little just writing that clause — but a simple Bluetooth bridge for sending an iPod-toting friend nearby an iTunes link to a song from your library.
  • And the biggie: storage. I’m thinking this sucker would debut in two capacities, 160 and 250 GB. I really don’t care if it’s flash-based storage or not. I just want the room.

Would this iPod macro, you ask, have the same capabilities as the iPod touch? On the one hand, there is no reason it couldn’t; on the other, releasing two so similar products might be confusing to the marketplace. Would I buy a touchscreen iPod that was artificially blocked from installing apps? Probably — after all, it’s not like my current iPod can run apps — but I am likely in the minority here. Instead, I am thinking that an iPod macro really wouldn’t be as confusing as all that. If Apple can help people choose between otherwise-identical WiFi and 3G-enabled iPads, I think that few people would buy iPod macros who didn’t really, really want the extra storage and the convenience of the on-board controls; the storage premium alone would ensure that only hardcore music listeners would spring for them.

So this, more than an iPad 3 or an iPhone 5, is my current dream product from Apple. If there is little likelihood Apple would actually build it, there is even less that a competitor would; other music player vendors seem to have got the message that innovation is now for smart phones. As it happens, my current classic somehow recovered from its bought of battery flu and is behaving reliably again. I’m grateful. Until something genuinely exciting and new comes my way, from Apple or anywhere else, I’m in no hurry to buy my next mp3 player.